The art world has never been un-self-aware – its navel is deeper and more gazed-at than almost any other art form. So what happens when you bring artists unaware of the art world into the contemplated and contemplating fold? The Museum of Everything, a new space in Primrose Hill, north-west London, which opened this week, is devoted to outsider art and by extension to answering this question.
James Brett is the founder of the Museum of Everything and a keen collector of art made by non-traditional artists; he rejects the term 'outsider art' as being too loose and inaccurate.
He sees his artists as “anyone who’s making art privately – or feels that they have been called”. As he says this, we walk past the work of Hackney medium Madge Gill, who felt compelled to draw over and over a spirit who came to her: the two sides of a corridor contain dozens of these small black-pen drawings.
The main space is hung like a Russian aristocrat’s palace, with pictures jostling on every inch of every wall, from floor to 30-foot ceiling. There is Indian-influenced work and Pop Art-esque work, Incan animals and urban sprawl. By being outside of the mainstream, there is no-one to dictate fashion in their art.
“They are not always artistically talented,” says James, reflecting on the varying quality of the work, “but they tell the truth, and the truth finds the form.” What perhaps unites all of this work is indeed that truth-telling, the lack of restraint. This is not to imply the work is gross or unsubtle, only that you do not feel the artists are holding back through dogma or ‘dignity’.
It would be patronising to say that a museum for outsider art is a daring move – we’re very liberal, don’t you know – but art from outside the mainstream by definition is harder to place in context, to assess as part of a wider tradition, and runs the risk of drawing from viewers either blank looks or beneficent glances, not serious consideration.
The crowds milling round the 10,000 square foot former dairy which houses the museum are the Hampstead smart set, which lends a slight air of unreality to a show of work by their social polar opposites: theirs are a combination of polite blankness and genuine enthusiasm. James cannot move for being crushed by an embracing fur coat.
This insidering of outsider art is akin to the tree falling in the forest: is it still outsider art if it’s looked at in a gallery, or does it become just another part of the art world? Some of what makes this art-for-art’s-sake special is that it was never intended for show. In arriving at greater exposure, the semi-illiterate placards quoting the Bible and damning communism and Aleksander P Lobanov’s self-portraits with gun lose a little of their intimacy. Of course, you are trading this for access to unknown worlds, and I think the price is fair: Sister Gertrude Morgan’s visions of her literal marriage to Christ are a beautiful revelation.
The official opening is October 14. James plans to keep the museum open throughout Frieze Week, next week, and depending on demand perhaps Thursday to Sunday afterwards. What is certain is that in bringing the outside in, he has added a valuable new dimension to the London art scene, but not one without its own conflicts.
The Museum of Everything, corner of Regent's Park Road and Sharpleshall Street, London NW1